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The View from the Heartland

1.

Eau Claire, Wisconsin

These are battleground wards, of a battleground district, in a battleground state that’s supposedly being scoured by canvassers in pursuit of the few remaining undecided voters. I’ve landed here, a week before the first presidential debate, on a less frenetic mission. I want to listen, one by one, to a cross-section of Wisconsin voters, hoping to discover what I can about how Iraq is registering, especially among Bush voters, not only as a campaign issue but as a portent of what the country may face in the years ahead. But nothing much seems to be happening on the sun-dappled autumn weekend before the first debate between President Bush and his challenger, John Kerry. The battle is at its fiercest indoors on TV screens, where images of terrorists, terror bombings, and troops under fire are starting to pop up in political ads, but given the run of good weather, most of those screens are unattended even when they’re on.

In other words, battleground states are like anywhere else, except that they soak up television dollars and the travel time of candidates. The President is said to be ahead in the polls, but Wisconsin polls of registered voters can be unreliable because registration here is ongoing, all the way to election day. George and Laura Bush have been to Wisconsin on separate visits in the last few days; Kerry and Dick Cheney are on their way. And, of course, Wisconsin is a ground zero of a relentless television duel being waged by the campaigns and their supposedly arm’s-length surrogates such as the Progress for America Voter Fund (anti-Kerry) and the Public Campaign Action Fund (anti-Bush), in a contest that’s all but invisible to viewers in most of the states where the campaigns, reading their polls, don’t bother to buy broadcast time.

TV stations in Eau Claire and La Crosse, by contrast, have received, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, $3.36 million of the $22.4 million already spent on political advertising in Wisconsin, enough for thousands of airings in these overlapping media markets where a single showing of a thirty-second spot can cost under $300, unless it’s in prime time or during the breaks of Green Bay Packer football games. For the moment, the Bush and Kerry brands are likelier to show up on screens in western Wisconsin than Levitra and Viagra, even Honda and Ford. And campaign attack ads, it soon becomes apparent, are one way of bringing home what’s termed the global war on terror. (By coincidence or design, another way will follow hard on the election: a National Guard unit from western Wisconsin, the 128th Battalion of the First Infantry, is in training in Mississippi under orders that assign it to Iraq for a year starting in November. Maybe a quarter of its 680 troops are from Eau Claire, a city of 62,000 that has sustained only one casualty, shrapnel wounds to a sergeant in the Army reserves. But four men from nearby counties have been among the twenty-one Wisconsin soldiers killed, so far, on those remote battlegrounds, the real ones.)

The attack ads bring the war home with a vengeance. These people want to kill us, confides a sepulchral voice-over in an ad launched by the pro-Bush Progress for America Voter Fund, as images of Mohamed Atta, Osama bin Laden, and other terrorists are succeeded by shots of bleeding Russian schoolchildren, blown-out Madrid trains, and smoldering ruins at the site of the World Trade Center. Would you trust John Kerry to deal with these dangerous fanatics? It’s scary all right, but after the shock wears off on the second or third viewing, it becomes noticeable that one subject is glossed over and another dodged completely in this impossible-to-ignore example of the fearmonger’s art. What’s glossed over is the fact that Osama is still at large with five weeks to go to the election.

What’s dodged is Iraq; the war there is not alluded to at all. In what appears to be intended as a riposte, the Democratic National Committee fills the gap with its own attack ad, moving from images of the President in his flight suit under the now notorious “Mission Accomplished” banner to footage, punctuated by explosions, of American forces under fire in Iraq. How can you solve problems, it asks, when you don’t even admit that they’re there? (The answer from the Bush campaign comes swiftly, in yet another attack ad quoting Kerry against himself. Bush’s ad guys are on top of their game and, you can tell, they’re enjoying it. How can you solve problems, they shoot back, when you don’t even know where you stand?)

In the days leading up to the first debate, the challenger appears to be placing his biggest bet of the campaign on the proposition that voters are starting to have doubts about the Iraq adventure, which up to now has seemed to work in George W. Bush’s favor, allowing him to stand as a bold leader, one who has shown he won’t shrink from decisive action in defense of “the homeland.” Kerry’s bet is a risky one, not only because of the trail of sound bites and votes he has left on both sides of the Iraq issue, but also because if he now questions the basic wisdom of the enterprise, he can be portrayed as saying that more than one thousand American troops have died in vain. (If your memory goes back that far, it’s hard not to be reminded that Richard Nixon won the third presidential election of the Vietnam War in 1972 in a landslide.) If Kerry can’t make his case here, he’s probably doomed. After all, Wisconsin was carried by the Democrats in the last four presidential elections, even when Michael Dukakis was their candidate.

Al Gore held on to the state in 2000 by a margin of only 5,708 votes, twenty-seven of which came from the adjacent seventeenth and twenty-sixth wards on the southern side of this city, which, in a near dead heat, cast 788 votes for Gore and 761 for Bush. It’s a middle-class neighborhood of tidy ranch houses and small two-story homes which sell for between $90,000 and $160,000, where the streets are named after American military heroes—Grant and Lee, MacArthur and Patton, Nimitz and Halsey. Boats with outboard motors sit in driveways or garages on nearly every block, waiting to be hauled to nearby lakes; American flags left over from the burst of patriotism that followed September 11 still fly, often now faded, from every fifth or sixth house. It seems a good place to start my random, highly unscientific conversations, in which I try to listen rather than steer in hopes of encountering a full spectrum of Eau Claire’s views.

On Iraq, I soon learn, those views are occasionally fierce, more often half-formed, but seldom a clear indicator of the vote a person expects to cast. If the electorate is as polarized as we’ve constantly been told throughout the election year, it isn’t the overriding question about Iraq—whether it’s a legitimate part of the war on terror or a costly diversion spawning more terrorists—that’s polarizing it. In the days leading up to the debate, only the most partisan or watchful voters see that as the decisive issue on which they’ll have to make their choice; precisely the voters, that is, whose choice was never in doubt.

For the rest, Iraq evokes a range of conflicting instincts and feelings of inadequacy, a sense that they don’t know enough to know what or whom to believe. Hubert Fischer, a retired highways engineer who was the second of the thirty-six voters with whom I’d eventually speak, said he wished he’d read more about Iraq and its history. But he didn’t have a good feeling about where the situation there was heading. “Bush certainly showed leadership,” he said. “He showed that he’s not afraid to make a decision. The only question is how right has he been. You can have a lot of leadership and still be wrong. Look at Germany in World War II.” That was a surprising throwaway line, given that the retired engineer had already made clear his determination to vote for the President. He would vote for him because he was a single-issue voter, he explained. His issue was abortion. “There’s no issue out there that can trump it,” he said. “What’s more important than life?”

There were other pro-life voters and other single-issue Republican voters, notably owners of small businesses who felt grateful for the tax relief they’d already gotten from the Bush administration and hopeful of gaining more. None of them was hopeful about Iraq. “I feel like we did our part, and now it’s time to get out,” said Emily Nordlund, a Bush supporter and co-owner with her husband of a small food distribution business, whom I met when I ventured on my second day into the thirtieth ward, a neighborhood known as East Hill. “I’d like to stop hearing about war,” said her husband, Todd, who’d placed a Bush-Cheney decal on their front door. In fact, of the fifteen persons who told me that they planned or were strongly inclined to vote for the President, just three were steadfast in saying they wanted to “stay the course” in Iraq or support him in finishing there what he’d begun. “On the basis of the information he had at the time, he acted in the national interest,” said one of these Bush stalwarts, a physician’s assistant named Brenda Rodel. “If Kerry wins, I’m afraid we’ll pull out and leave it to the UN.”

Surprisingly, some single-issue Democrats and undecided voters wind up in about the same place, making the partisan divide on Iraq difficult to trace in Eau Claire’s wards. Yet beyond Iraq as an election issue, a free-floating anxiety seemed to hover over the open-ended Bush commitment there, begging a question that neither candidate and few other elected politicians have wanted to address: If more troops were needed, where would they come from, and how long would it be before restoration of a draft starts to be discussed as a serious option? “I’m praying they don’t bring back the draft,” said Sheri Holtey, a pro-life voter and strong Bush supporter with a fifteen-year-old son. “Talk of the draft makes me crazy,” said Mary Casey, a Kerry supporter whose son is ten. The draft was on no one’s agenda—Donald Rumsfeld, in fact, had to issue a denial as rumors flew around the Internet—but plainly it was on the minds of voters who couldn’t help thinking ahead and wondering where this all would end.

At the same time, the easy assumption that there was something noble about the crusade to bring down a tyranny and franchise our democracy in the Middle East tended to push aside the now confused question of what exactly had been the threat, leaving behind the issue of weapons of mass destruction and UN inspections; WMDs seemed to be ancient history, a forgotten question on last year’s final exam. Angie Yates is a part-time speech therapist in a grade school who will vote for Kerry because she deplores the No Child Left Behind program for its overemphasis on testing and its shortfalls in promised funding: in other words, a single-issue voter on the Democratic side. She didn’t follow the debates at the United Nations leading up to last year’s invasion but takes it as axiomatic that presidents don’t lightly send young soldiers to war, that this president against whom she means to vote must have acted in good faith, which is to say that he must have believed that Saddam Hussein had something to do with the attacks of September 11, 2001. She has continued to believe it herself, not knowing that it’s a view the President long ago had to disavow. “I’m not somebody cracking down on George Bush,” she said. “It may be taking longer than he thought but I still feel there’s a job to be done.”

Hindsight is easy, these voters sometimes suggest. While they now have misgivings, they recall that they didn’t at the outset and still remain grateful that Bush acted in defense of the country. “He’s the only one,” said Dale Brandenberg, a school counselor and wavering swing voter, “who has demonstrated, oh, just that he’s willing to take a hard stance. Whether it’s accurately guided or not is another question.” Simply put, as it often is, the thought boils down to this: in response to an outrage, Bush acted.

Whether he acted wisely—the question John Kerry had been seeking to raise—is less important to these voters than the question of whether Kerry could be trusted to act at all. This is the question the Bush campaign has skillfully managed to interject as the central issue of the campaign. Its caricature of the senator is close enough to the oversubtle reality to strike a chord but it suggests, as the candidates start cramming and rehearsing for the debate, that the encounter could work to the Democrat’s advantage if he manages to come across as strong and steady to voters worried about the Iraq commitment: those, that is, who are worried enough to pay attention. I asked Dale Brandenberg whether he’ll be watching. “Probably on tape delay or something,” he replied. Garrick Johnson, who installs fireplaces for a home improvement company, was another wavering voter. The Iraq invasion “probably wasn’t a bad idea,” he said, but it’s now obvious that “we’ve gotten in way too deep and a lot of countries don’t care for us.” He worries that Kerry, who strikes him as “one of those swanky guys,” may be “weaker” than Bush. But Garrick Johnson also said he’d be watching the debate, “at least a little bit of it.”

Wasn’t a bad idea” and “in way too deep” are seemingly contradictory judgments, but seeming contradiction is not uncharacteristic of those whose political thoughts are basically part of an interior monologue, marinating in whatever comes out of the TV as they zap through dozens of cable channels, or out of the car radio on the ride to work. If these voters, who seem to be polarized internally, can stand on two sides of an issue, they might be thought to have, at least, some glimmering of its dimensions. The Wisconsin ballot this fall gives them a way to express both inclinations, their coexisting desires to support a war president and see the country extricated from his war.

Polls indicate that two in ten of probable Bush voters are likely also to vote for the Democrat Russell Feingold, Wisconsin’s two-term junior senator, who two years ago opposed the Iraq war resolution that Senator Kerry supported because he found the administration’s case “confused” and “seemingly shifting” (and then voted for the $87 billion military appropriation that Kerry famously opposed). Not only that, Russ Feingold was the solitary senator to cast a “nay” vote on the USA Patriot Act. Seeking to immunize himself against an expected onslaught, he defended that vote in a TV ad that aired in the weeks before his Republican opponent, a former Army ranger named Tim Michels, was even chosen. Holding a facsimile of the Bill of Rights in which some lines had been heavily inked out, Feingold said he supported “most” of the Patriot Act, just not the provisions that give the government “extreme powers” to invade the private lives of ordinary citizens.

This fit in nicely with the persona he has created in a series of cute campaign ads of a friendly but incorrigible busybody, a slightly pesky independent addicted to raising tough questions. One of his ads illustrates the point by putting him at a movie theater refreshment stand and a high school football game. “So what’s your profit margin on this stuff?” the senator asks the salesgirl. “Are you sorry now you didn’t go for the tying field goal?” he asks the coach. If Bush and Feingold both carry the state, what will the message be? Will it be that Wisconsin’s maverick tradition, represented in their different ways by Robert LaFollette and Joe McCarthy, still thrives? Or will it be that many voters want it both ways?

Asked how often they discussed politics with friends and colleagues, all but the most partisan claimed that they generally avoided the subject. They didn’t want to be drawn into an argument, they said. They also shrank from political conversation, a few acknowledged, because they didn’t want to be tested on their actual knowledge of issues or make themselves conspicuous. One man, a sales manager for a home improvement company, said he’d be jeopardizing his future if he became known as “a bleeding heart liberal” to his employer, a strong Republican who has attached Bush-Cheney bumper stickers to all the company cars. He thinks the war in Iraq is basically “a war for resources” and will vote for Kerry as “the lesser of two evils” but he keeps such views to himself.

Virginia Andersen, an elderly widow, has come to roughly similar conclusions after talking to a gentleman friend. “I’ve always been a Republican but this time, I don’t know,” she said. “I think that Bush—so handsome as he is, so clean-appearing as he is, and as charming as he is—I think he’s for the rich. There are so many angles but the whole story may just be oil.” That leads to a further unthinkable conclusion, about Iraq, one that she says will certainly annoy her Republican brother from Nashville. “But it’s so obvious,” Mrs. Anderson said. “They don’t want us there, do they?”

Such interior monologues can be thought of as the petri dishes in which campaign attacks germinate or die. Morton Sipress, a political scientist retired from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, said he thought it was possible to show statistically through polling data that the effect of negative advertising is not to move votes but to discourage them, to raise doubts at just the point when wavering voters are verging on a decision, causing them to stay home. The voters themselves describe the conscious efforts they make to withstand attack ads. Angie Yates said she was on the treadmill at the Y watching Good Morning America when the anti-Kerry ad showing Osama bin Laden flashed on the screen. She already had the sound muted, she said, but had to turn her head to avoid the scenes of carnage.

I found it striking that none of the people I spoke to repeated the language of the attack ads they’d seen or dwelled on what Kerry and Bush did at the time of a long-ago war in Southeast Asia. But the ads have left an impression. Three women and one man said they were “scared” by Kerry; only one, Jerry Blodgett, said he was “scared” of Bush. (“I’m afraid of what he’ll do next,” the retired barber said.) Mostly, they spoke respectfully of both candidates. “No one gets to that level who’s not intelligent,” said Tom Tio, a dietician at a private health care company who was strongly inclined to vote for Bush, in spite of his doubts on Iraq. But he volunteered his view that Kerry was “stronger” and “more charismatic” than Al Gore, who “came across,” he said, “as someone who thought he had a right to be president.”

This was a more generous judgment of the challenger than any I heard in the days before the debate from those Democrats whose hunger for a change in the White House was most intense. Fearful that their man was lagging behind, that even Wisconsin might be slipping away, they blamed Kerry for being wordy, unlike his opponent, and stunted in his ability to communicate feeling. “I don’t think he has any fire,” said Jim Jarzynski, who teaches at a technical college. “Yesterday he gave a speech on Iraq. I thought the ideas were wonderful but I said to my son, ‘I just wish he could take that speech and summarize it in twenty-five words or less.’ Bush picks up a simple idea and hammers away at it. That’s just not Kerry’s style…. I can’t think about Bush without wanting to swear. I’m amazed at my own feelings about him. I think that’s because I’m so afraid he’s going to win.”

A generation ago, before Uniroyal, the tire maker, and other manufacturing companies left the city, a reporter visiting Eau Claire would have been likely to meet production workers belonging to trade unions. I happened to meet only one. Dale Hays, who works for Nestle, said, “Everything’s doing crap”—meaning his health care plan, on which his costs are rising; the money market where he gets low interest on his savings; and the stocks in his 401(k), which have slumped. He was unusual only in that he seemed to think this had something to do with who was running the country. Younger workers, who’ve grown up in the new service economy as computer technicians or sitting at computers in corporate offices with few assumptions about job security, think of themselves as being on their own. Wary of politics and government programs as they are, they seem inclined to think that the Republicans will do more for their companies, and thus indirectly for them, and that maybe one day they’ll be part of George W. Bush’s “opportunity society,” whatever that proves to be.

Populist critiques of “tax cuts for the wealthy” tend to leave them cold, at least until they’re connected to cutbacks to services they care about such as the police, the schools their children attend, or their retirement prospects under an overburdened Social Security system, which, many of them seem to assume, won’t be protected and therefore can’t be counted on anyway. Briefly put, they don’t expect much of presidents beyond the hope that they’ll reflect well on the country by not embarrassing it or, in the aftermath of September 11, leaving it open to attack.

2.

The first debate took place on the last night of September, the day on which the mounting number of attacks, car bombings, and American casualties had proved to be the most violent of the eighteen months since Saddam Hussein’s statues had been hauled down in Baghdad. I watched the debate in the East Hill home of Angie Yates, the speech therapist voting against the broken promise of No Child Left Behind, and her husband, Mike, whose vote was still up for grabs. Angie belongs to the National Education Association. Mike, who works in customer relations for a large power company, taking calls and handling correspondence from businesses and homeowners, is untethered to any guild telling him how to vote. Raised in a liberal household, he voted twice for Bill Clinton but came to regret it as a result of the cloud of scandal that seemed to him to hang over the Clinton White House, in matters involving political money especially. Responding to the candidacy of John McCain, he drifted toward the Republicans in 2000. He was “amazed,” he said, when George W. Bush beat his candidate but he voted for Bush anyway in November. Now thirty-four, he was hung up on Iraq, leaning toward Kerry because of the questions about what Bush should have done, but not yet ready to dismiss Bush as commander in chief.

Putting her young son and daughter to bed, Angie missed the first hour of the debate but, except for a few minutes when he was called to the phone, Mike watched intently, betraying no reaction till the end. Then, before hearing any of the commentators or campaign advocates pronounce on what he’d just witnessed, Mike rendered his judgment. “Kerry came off a lot better than I expected. He seemed to back the President onto the defensive.” The senator had more to say while Bush kept repeating himself, Mike said. “He kept saying he believes in what he’s doing. I understand he believes in what he’s doing but sometimes it seems like he’s wearing rose-colored glasses. He’s so positive,” Mike said, “he hardly mentions anything negative.”

So are you ready to vote for Kerry?” asked Angie, who had nearly gotten used to the notion that she was married to a Republican.

Somewhere I’m pulling for him,” Mike conceded. But he wouldn’t commit on the strength of one debate.

I turned up no converts when I circled back through the three Eau Claire wards the day after the debate to talk to some of the others I’d interviewed earlier. But there was a discernible shift in assessments of the challenger. Jim Jarzynski, the Democrat who’d said he wanted to swear when he considered the prospect of a Bush reelection, said he was much relieved. He now thought Kerry to be “perhaps the right fellow” to take the President on. “If I’d been a Democrat, I would have been very proud of Kerry,” said Virginia Andersen, the widow who’d never voted for a Democrat for president. She now felt that she had to consider that possibility. It was a big decision, I observed. “Oh my, yes,” she agreed.

As he predicted, Garrick Johnson, the wavering fireplace installer, didn’t get to watch the whole debate. A friend dropped in to borrow some tools so he saw only the beginning and the end, enough to overcome his concern that Kerry might be weak, but he came away still liking Bush’s insouciant way of making hard decisions without worrying about second-guessing from other countries. “Boom-boom” was how he verbalized it, pounding his right fist into his left palm. His wife, Michelle, said she imagined that their votes—assuming they’d finally be able to make up their minds—would probably be determined by issues other than Iraq. “It’s a big thing,” she said, “but I’m not convinced anybody can get us out.” Not Bush, not Kerry. A debate that couldn’t provide the how and when of a US exit gave her little motive for choosing one of the candidates, it seemed. Pam White, one of the women who earlier had said she was “scared” of Kerry, had been out to dinner and missed the first hour of the debate, but what she saw and heard afterward on news shows caused her to reconsider her judgment. Now, it seemed, she was a likely Bush voter rather than a sure one.

These small tropisms of individual voter-viewers, such as a shift from undecided or decided to likely, don’t register well in polls but they represent movement. The direction of that movement can have everything to do with when a friend drops in for tools, what channel was on, whether they were paying attention, and what the voter-viewer actually knows and thinks about the subject under discussion. No one I spoke to noticed that there hadn’t been any discussion of torture as a technique in interrogation, or of the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission and the Senate report on intelligence failures. These were not matters that had more than grazed their consciousness.

At the same time, divided within themselves on Iraq, Eau Claire viewer-voters seem unlikely to question the patriotism of doubters. Democrats and Republicans alike hang out the flag here and affix magnetic strips in the form of yellow ribbons bearing the legend “Support Our Troops” to their pickups and SUVs. In contrast to the Vietnam War, the war on terror has inspired no counterculture and no backlash against nonconformity. At the Oakwood Mall I saw two bumper stickers side by side on the back of a small sportswagon that seemed to manifest the easy coexistence of trends that once might have clashed. “Keep Your Laws Off My Body,” one bumper sticker said. “My Son is a US Marine,” said the other.

The larger question for voters who were simultaneously anxious and patriotic—and for the challenger—is how you can support the troops without supporting the President’s commitment to “stay the course,” whatever and however long it takes. No one I spoke to after the debate came away with a new understanding of what had to be done in Iraq. The more immediate question wasn’t who had an answer but who would be likeliest to come up with one if the downward spiral into chaos in Iraq continued. Put another way, the question was how well the President’s optimism would wear between now and November 2.

Thanks to his assured performance in the first debate, John Kerry had come to seem a plausible president in the eyes of his own supporters and even some who were leaning the other way. For those who sat through the full ninety minutes, it would be harder now to make the charge stick that he was a waffler. But what of those who walked out of the room, or met friends in a sports or karaoke bar, or watched another channel? How many of them would be moved to vote and what would those underexposed voters conclude from the news summaries they happened to see in which George Bush’s repetitive answers in the debate tended to play as sharp and effective sound bites? Which, finally, would stick, the impression of the debate or the impression of the sound bites?

In Eau Claire’s fifteenth ward, I ran into Mike Fischer, a Vietnam veteran and former Marine who now travels the upper Midwest as a sales representative. Mike had planted a Kerry sign on his lawn but he was optimistic about neither the campaign nor the war. The vets he runs into at his VFW post had long ago closed their minds to the senator on account of his antiwar activities more than three decades ago. (“He called us baby killers,” they say.) Almost to a man, they now support the President. “We’ll be very lucky,” the former Marine said, “if we get out of there with less than two or three thousand lives lost and 25,000 casualties.”

October 2, 2004

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